Gateway Drug to the Russian Novel


Title: Fathers and Sons

Rating: 4 Stars

Considering its modest length, this is basically a Russian novel for beginners. It has many themes that you’d expect from a Russian novel, but clocks in at a little over two hundred pages.  At that point in War and Peace, Tolstoy is just getting ready to introduce his fiftieth character.

At its heart, like in many Russian novels, lies generational conflict. You have the older generation. They consider themselves to be liberal and progressive. They’ve survived the serf reforms and are now trying to treat the serfs in a humane if somewhat indulgent manner (ie not as outright slaves). They respect tradition and aristocracy and like to think of themselves as enlightened Russians.

The younger generation is having none of that. They want to completely free the serfs and they want to be free of all traditions. They believe in nihilism. You have to destroy and/or ignore the past and start from scratch, making sure that first such things are done as making sure that all are fed and clothed and then slowly build up from there. Question everything, and everything that does not stand up to their rigor must be discarded.

In this case, the younger generation is represented by two young men, Arkaday Kirsanov and Yevgeny Bazarov. Bazarov, the more dynamic and intellectual of the two, is clearly dominant. Kirsanov is much more an acolyte under the thrall of Bazarov.

Trouble starts up when they visit Kirsanov’s father, Nikolai, and his uncle, Pavel. Pavel is clearly representing the aristocratic previous generation, complete with his prideful quasi-expertise in French, his excessively perfumed handkerchiefs and his respectably tragic love affair in his past.

Nearly immediately Bazarov and Pavel are at odds. They engage in debates in which Pavel comes out much the worse.

After a short time, the two young men leave to visit a town, in which they encounter an enigmatic young woman, Anna Odintsova.  Against his will, Bazarov finds himself falling in love with her. Cursing the prosaic nature of it but unable to deny his love, Bazarov professes his love and is rejected, much to his horror, disgust, and disappointment.

The young men next visit Bazarov’s parents, who are a complete contrast to their son. They are traditional, superstitious, poorly educated Russian farmers. Although Bazarov holds them in affection, their simple nature stands in stark contrast to their more sophisticated, intellectual son that holds in contempt all that they hold dear.

Ultimately, Kirsanov cannot completely tear himself away from the tradition upon which he was raised and comes into conflict with Bazarov. He breaks with the nihilist philosophy, marries a conventional woman and takes up farming by the side of his father.

In classic Russian novel, Kirsanov, the principled hero, contracts a deadly disease. Before his death, there is a final rapprochement with his love Odintsova.

So, what do we have here?

  • Generational conflict? Check
  • Early, tragic death? Check
  • Emotional intensity? Check
  • Passionate unrequited love affair? Check
  • Uneducated buffoonish Russian peasants? Check
  • Uneducated but earthy wise Russian peasants? Check
  • Many statements about how Russia was, how it is, and how it will be? Check

In short, pretty much everything that you’d expect from a Russian novel, just with way fewer characters and in a much more abbreviated form.

If you’re looking to read Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov and need a gateway drug to get you started, you can do worse than by reading Fathers and Sons.


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